I want to jump right into the conversation on this topic. It is something I have always been so passionate about, and the passion grows stronger as I grow wiser. If you are an aspiring artist, up and coming or new to the game, I hope this post finds you and helps you out in any way with your music and gig life. I want to start with 2 examples that happened to me in the past few days, just to set the stage.
About two weeks ago, I received an e-mail about performing locally. There wasn't really any introduction, no "this is who referred me to you" or "this is how I found you," just a 'hey are you free to play in the next coming weeks.' I love performing live, and this was a new location for me, so I immediately responded. I said I was free and interested in performing, asked what date and time was available, will a PA be provided, and is there any compensation? ______________________ (that's a flatline). Now, a few days ago someone reached out to me asking if I could write a song for someone special. What an amazing gift and awesome opportunity! I responded that I was interested, and gave this kind gentleman an affordable and fair price for two different options for the project. _____________________(another flatline). Now that you know the scenarios, let's talk about what happened and why artists need to SELL THEIR SERVICES.
Scene One: Live Performance
These scenarios happen all too often, and I have experienced them many times in my young life, and it breaks my heart every single time. We all know that saying, "nothing comes free," and that applies to all services including music, yet it seems that people want to pay the least for something they want the most. Musicians have bills too, and deserve to be compensated rightfully. Let's start with a little backstory related to the local gig scenario.
A few years ago I saw that my town was looking for musicians to perform live music at the local farmers market. It was more a community service gig, aka no pay, but I applied and was offered a spot. I didn't have to drive far, and I thought it could be a cool way to try and sell some CD's and get local support. That's not usually how it works (LOL) but I took a chance anyways. When I arrived at the market, there was no one there directing me on where to plug my speaker in, where to stand, etc. I had to plug my PA into an outlet inside the Starbucks right next to the market, and it was as if those workers had no idea what was happening right outside the door. I was starting to realize that this was a tad unorganized, but I still wanted to make it work. One of the more friendly Starbucks workers helped me tape my extension cord to the wall. I was able to play my set and it was a fun hour. Fast forward to a year later where I said I would play again. I experienced some road blocks the year before, but now I knew where to set up, plug in, etc. I had unloaded my car with all my equipment, and when I was plugging into the Starbucks, I realized I didn't have any tape. I asked one of the Starbucks workers if she had some, and I received the most attitude that I had ever experienced in my life. I was so disgusted that I just went to plan B. It was rumored that there was an outlet in the same area just across the way, in a small park. I can't remember if the outlet was there or not or if there was no power, but once again there was no one there to help me. I became so angry that I packed up my car and left. I wrote an e-mail to the town clergy who overlook all the town events, and respectfully told them that if you expect musicians to play for free, you need to provide a PA system or a working outlet or even a plan so they can have the easiest experience setting up and performing. I told them that my experience was horrible and that I wouldn't ever recommend an artist here unless there was compensation because this should have been a paid job. A woman responded back and apologized, and told me all live music would halt until they could find a solution. I guess the solution was to save money.
I truly believe that the first year I played, I was just lucky. Nothing was easy and no one knew what was going on, but I was somehow able to get the job done. When I wrote that e-mail about musician compensation and what I had experienced the following year, I felt proud of myself. When a musician goes to a gig, they need to load their car with equipment, drive to the gig, unload the car, set up, sound check, play the gig (2-4 hours), break down, load the car, drive back home and unload the car. It's a lot of work, and in my case it's just me! We are our own roadies, and roadies get paid! The service I was providing was live music, to make the farmers market more fun and exciting and to get the shoppers excited and happy. That is a service people! They could easily play a radio, but they wanted an ambiance.
I learned a huge lesson from my farmers market experience, which is why I asked the questions that I did for the new local gig. If I was expected to bring a PA and play live music for free, I probably would have passed on the offer. Sometimes it is not worth the hassle for a little bit of "exposure" (ugh I hate that word!). And honestly, if my question about compensation turned that woman off, then I definitely don't want to perform there! I am not saying to never play for free. Sometimes it helps get a foot in, or sometimes you just feel like, why not? But as you get more experience and work more and you learn your worth, you should never settle for anything less than you deserve. I played a 3 hour gig at a restaurant that was popular and I really wanted to play there. The e-mail wasn't clear on if I would get paid $50/hour or $50 total, and I didn't ask for clarification because I was so new to the restaurant gig and I was happy I got a night to perform. It was $50 for the whole night, and I felt so shitty. I brought my own equipment, practiced learning songs all week, and sang my ass off for 3 hours, for $50. They asked me back and I said that my rate was $150 and I won't do it for less than $100 (my first mistake. No options!) so they paid me $100. It still wasn't enough, but I played there once or twice a month for about 3 months. Funny side story, the owner now owns a restaurant I used to play at and I bumped into him recently. He told me he was doing live music and wanted me to play there. I e-mailed him, letting him know my gig has changed since those old days and gave him my new price. You guessed it, another flatline!
Scene Two: Projects
Now I want to talk about the special song. So this man who I do not know reached out to me after seeing a video I posted, and asked if I could write a song for someone special. I thought this was so sweet and amazing, and a great opportunity to make some money! I thought 'if this goes well I could advertise this service.' I see artists online who offer to write a fun little greeting or birthday song, for a price, and it is such a fun idea. I didn't know this guy from a hole in the wall, and before I responded back with pricing I thought, why would I do this guy a favor? He wants a song that he can't write so he is asking me, a songwriter, and I am providing a service for him. I gave him two different prices, one for a live video song and the other for a recording. I would be spending time writing the music and lyrics, practicing the song, and either performing live or recording it, which would require even more of my time. I was flatlined for this too, and maybe he will respond and say let's do it, but maybe COVID will be gone tomorrow.
When I told some of my friends about this situation, the unanimous response was "what does he expect you to do it for free?" And they're right, because he did. And people do all the time. That's how it is. And I really want to change that.
Independent artists like me right now are having a tough time getting their music out there. Every promotional service costs a shitload of money, and they're not even guaranteed results. Right now, the days of performing and selling your CD's are over for 2 reasons. One, it's COVID and live music is very rare right now, and two no one has a place to play the CD's anymore. Right now music is free: streaming, youtube, illegal downloading, and who knows what else. Everyone wants to listen on Spotify, and even if you get 10,000 streams on a song, you're still not making money. It is a hard time for artists to sell their music, but you can still sell your services. That might be all we have left! Artists, both big and small, love to say that they play music because they love it, not for the money. But if a gig pays good money, you're going to take it. And the bigger the artist you are, the more money you have so I don't really believe in that statement. Money cannot buy you happiness, but it can buy you food and shelter. It makes the world go round, and just because you are a musician does not mean you deserve to live like shit. If someone wants you to play for three hours in a restaurant, you need to be paid. If someone wants you to write a song for a band, you need to be paid. If someone wants you to play at their bar but wants you to bring people or else you have to pay, you need to not play there. Live music is so powerful. You as a musician have the power to set the mood of the venue, the audience, the night.
A musician's kryptonite is exposure, however, a little bit can't hurt. I've played enough gigs in my younger life for the exposure and I will say that it did help shape the artist that I am today, and helped me become a better performer. I sang the National Anthem at Madison Square Garden for over 2,000 people. SO MUCH EXPOSURE! Even though I didn't sell music or get more followers, I had the best time of my life and it is one of my most memorable experiences I've had to this day. Like I said earlier, I am not saying not to do free gigs. Every once in a while a gig will come along that has no compensation, but the opportunity is good enough that you take it, and that is okay!
If you want to be a part-time or full-time musician, you have to know your worth. I took a firm stance on two situations that I wanted to be a part of, but wanted to be treated fairly for. They didn't pan out, but that doesn't mean other opportunities won't come knocking. Know your worth. Once you know your worth and respect yourself, others will do the same.